Many of us are unfamiliar with what a Coroners Court is or what they do, yet their services are crucial to our community. This article seeks to briefly describe the function and purpose of the Coroners Court and the services it provides.
What They Do
The Coroners Court offers crucial coronial services to the New Zealand Police and other government agencies through investigating circumstances and causes of death for certain deaths. Much emphasis is put on conducting such investigations in a professional and respectful manner, having regard to the differing cultural and spiritual requirements of the deceased and their families. The findings of investigations are used to make recommendations for the betterment of public safety and the prevention of deaths in similar circumstances.
The Coroners Court is part of the Ministry of Justice and there are currently 14 coroners situated in nine locations throughout New Zealand. They are appointed by the Governor General pursuant to the Coroners Act 2006. A coroner will have a legal background and is considered to be a judicial officer. The current Chief Coroner is District Court Judge, Neil MacLean.
The Coroners Act 2006
The Coroners Act 2006 (the ‘2006 Act’) repealed and replaced the Coroners Act 1988 and came into effect on 1 July 2007. The 2006 Act was designed to enhance independence and public confidence in the coronial system after a number of reforms undertaken by the Ministry of Justice in relation to the 1988 Act.
Key features of the 2006 Act include:
- appointment of the Chief Coroner, establishment of the Coronial Services Unit,
- training guidelines for coroners,
- guidelines for the recognition of the different cultural and spiritual needs of families and those with a close relationship to the deceased, and
- a focus on the public good associated with a proper and timely understanding of the causes and circumstances of deaths.
The 2006 Act contains a requirement (carried over from the 1988 Act) that deaths resulting from the following circumstances must be reported to the coroner:
- deaths without a known cause,
- unnatural or violent deaths,
- where a cause of death cannot be established by a doctor,
- where the death occurred while or as a result of:
- a surgical or dental procedure,
- a woman giving birth,
- while the deceased was in official custody or care.
The services of the Coroners Court are essential in the event of a natural disaster, especially when visual identification of victims is difficult. These services have most recently been utilised following the February earthquakes in Christchurch. They have played a critical role in establishing the identities and causes of death for the victims of the earthquake and in facilitating the timely release of the victims back to their families.
In the case where an unfortunate accident causes a death, as in the case of Aisling Symes, the toddler who fell into a manhole in 2009 and was missing for a week before her body was found, the Coroners Court plays an essential role. An inquest by the Coroner looks into the circumstances leading up to the death which contributed to that death but that were preventable. The purpose of an inquiry in this manner is to identify what lead to the death/s in order to avoid a similar incident occurring again.
For families and friends who have lost loved ones in unfortunate or unknown circumstances, the Coroners Court provides answers that would otherwise not be available. Their findings are invaluable, especially in the aftermath of a natural disaster and in criminal investigations/ proceedings. They also, to some extent, offer families some form of closure.
For more information on coronial services and procedures, or for information on coroners in relation to the Christchurch earthquake, visit www.justice.govt.nz/courts/coronerscourt.